SpaceX Picks Launch Date for New Rocket's Debut
SpaceX's first Falcon 9 rocket stands vertical atop its Space Launch Complex 40 pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Jan. 2009.
Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON ? Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has requested a Feb. 2 launch date for the maiden flight of its new Falcon 9 rocket, according to a recent launch range forecast issued by the U.S. Air Force?s 45th Space Wing.

The Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX said in early October that it expects to deliver Falcon 9 flight hardware to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., launch facility in November and then launch one to three months later. Falcon 9?s debut originally was planned for 2007 but development of the rocket ? along with that of its smaller sibling, the Falcon 1 ? has taken longer than SpaceX expected.

But the new launch target comes with a caveat. SpaceX?s proposed 11 a.m. EST (1600 GMT) liftoff would conflict with an already approved United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 launch of NASA?s Solar Dynamic Observatory, according to the range forecast released Oct. 28.

SpaceX said as recently as Oct. 21 that the inaugural Falcon 9 launch is a demonstration flight that will carry a prototype reusable cargo-carrying vehicle being developed with NASA funding help. The mission will provide aerodynamic and performance data on the Dragon capsule qualification unit, although the primary customer for the mission in a U.S. government customer SpaceX says it is not at liberty to name.

SpaceX officials have said the flight is not intended to count as one of the Dragon flight demos SpaceX is obliged to fly for NASA under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement. That 2006 agreement promised SpaceX $278 million in incentive payments in exchange for three demonstrations of Dragon?s ability to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.

The first demo was to have occurred in September 2008, followed by a second in June 2009 and a third in September 2009. In February 2008, SpaceX and NASA amended their COTS agreement, rescheduling the first Dragon demo flight for June 2009.

In addition to its COTS money, SpaceX received a $1.6 billion NASA contract in December 2008 to haul some 20 tons of cargo to the space station between 2011 and 2016.

While SpaceX works to get the first Falcon 9 off the ground, the company continues to press NASA and Congress for funding needed to modify Dragon and demonstrate its reliability as a crew-carrying vessel.

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk says that Dragon could be made ready to carry crews approximately three years from the time NASA provides the funding to make the necessary modifications, which include development of a launch escape system.

SpaceX spokeswoman Cassie Kloberdanz did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the February launch reservation.

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